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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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Collapsible Summer Fun: The Berthon Folding Canoe

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Summer is officially upon us, and that means a bevy of outdoor activities lay waiting for our enjoyment. Whether you’re a hiker, swimmer, boater, biker or picnicker, one thing is certain: the more portable the necessary equipment is to lug around, the better—especially for those of us who rely on public transportation to get from place to place. The Rev. E. L. Berthon must have certainly had this in mind when he invented the “Berthon Folding Canoe” featured on the cover of the June 21, 1879, Scientific American Supplement.

Berthon Folding Canoe

Berthon had previously attained fame as the inventor of collapsible boats. He presented his first design to the British admiralty in 1849, but it was not well received. In 1873 he came forward with an improved design that was met with enthusiasm. In an address to the Society of Arts in London, which can be found in the Scientific American Supplement from August 11, 1877, Berthon explained his reasons for inventing such a boat. Most ships did not carry enough lifeboats for the number of passengers onboard because of space restrictions, and further, the boats were often stored in a way that made it difficult to lower them in a timely manner for anyone to be saved. His collapsible boat could easily be stored—it folded up to one sixth its original size. Berthon described the design as follows:

“Imagine a long melon cut into thin slices, their shape will be more or less lenticular. Now, suppose these to be jointed together at each end, so as to lay flat side by side, like the leaves of a shut book, or to take any other position radiating from a central line. Now, if when a certain number of such segments, properly placed at certain distances, are connected together by some flexible material on their outer edges, and made watertight, the structure becomes a boat…”

Berthon Collapsible Boat
The boat consisted of eight segments crafted from a hard, elastic wood such as Canadian elm, which were clinched together with copper rivets. The frame of the boat was also made from wood, and the keelson, or backbone of the frame, attached to the sides by means of a certain chain-hinge that allowed them to shut on each other when the boat was folded. Canvas or other heavy material lined the bottom of the boat in two layers, so when the boat was opened, air pockets automatically formed between the layers of canvas.

Berthon Collapsible Boat top view
A few years later, in 1879, Berthon adapted his idea to construct a collapsible canoe. Apparently, recreational canoeing had become a big fad, and although the Scientific American article does not specify which canoe club, it reported that “members of the Canoe Club already number nearly 600.” Furthermore, “many tourists have experienced the difficulty and annoyance of carrying a canoe about with them from lake to lake or river to river.” Berthon’s canoe alleviated some of this burden. When folded, the canoe was only 7.5 centimeters thick and weighed 18 kilograms. The hull was made of canvas and the deck from wood. These would be held down flat by spring crossbars that could be detached when the canoe was folded. The canoe was able to hold about 100 kilograms safely.

Berthon Collapsible Canoe, folded and other views
Folding canoes are still popular today, and are built with the same design concepts introduced by Berthon over 100 years ago. Berthon went on to start his own boat-building company, specializing in lifeboats. The company, eventually taken over by his sons, is still in existence today but focuses mainly on the manufacturing of yachts. These have yet to become collapsible.

About the Author: Nature Publishing Group and Scientific American are working to digitize all past issues of the magazine. Mary Karmelek is in charge of checking over each issue, and in the process she uncovers fascinating, captivating and humorous material buried in the yellowed pages of our past.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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